The Humans Behind the Machines: Spotlight on the People & Processes Keeping the Commons Going

The CUNY Commons Team posing with a Community Facilitator for Bronx Community College,posing at #bronxedtech 2017

Welcome fellow Commoners!

Most weeks I write about new and interesting work people are sharing on the Commons. In this vast, open, shareable space we call the Commons, people from across CUNY experiment, collaborate and create in unexpected ways all the time. This week, though, I want to offer you a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes. The Commons is, after all, an ongoing experiment in creating more open and transparent digital spaces for the CUNY system. It forges ahead thanks to the efforts of many dedicated people: programmers, designers, technicians, librarians, faculty, students, project-managers, and community leaders. This post is, in a small way, a thank you to all of them. Below you’ll read about howthese folks work together to brainstorm, design, and implement changes that help support the Commons and there are many more people than are named in this post. But hopefully we’ll get to everyone (including readers and content creators like you) through future posts and behind-the-scenes glimpses.

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In Common this Week: A New York State of Mind

Welcome back fellow Commoners,

I’ve been thinking a lot about New York City lately because I’m teaching a course on Literature and Place this semester at Queens College. I decided to focus the class not only on how place and setting are important to literature, but on New York City as a particularly “literary” place. There are so many stories about the places my students currently inhabit, and it’s been my hope throughout the semester that students contrast their experiences living in the city with it’s literary depictions. One weekly reminder I have of the dissonance these can have is when the bus I ride to QC drives past Flushing-Corona Park. The site now famous for being home to two World’s Fairs and (perhaps ingloriously) as the site for the dramatic ending sequence in the movie Men in Black (). My students are often stunned to realize that Flushing-Corona Park was once the home to massive dump for the coal ashes that heated homes throughout the city and that the “Valley of Ashes” made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Great Gatsby is one and the same. So this week I want to highlight a few New York City-focused pages from around the Commons.

New York State of Mind: Dispatches on American Literature, Culture & Identity – A mapping project from Professor J. Brett Maney and students at Lehman College, this maps the locations of well-known texts with links so you can read them!

How Poor Public Transit Makes Idiots of Us All – There isn’t much that can be more New York than complaining about public transit, especially recent amidst increasing MTA service problems and derailments. In this post hosted by the CUNY school of Professional Studies’ Murphey Institute, Professor Kafui Attoh discusses what our public transit problem mean for city planning.

The Bronx was Brewing: Mapping the Breweries of the 23rd Ward – I guess I’m a sucker for a mapping project. In this MALS capstone project, the historical breweries of the Bronx (once home to 17 breweries in a 10 block radius!) are mapped and discussed.

That’s it for this week. Have fun exploring the Commons!

Best,

Paul

In Common This Week: The Provost’s Digital Innovation Grant

Welcome fellow Commoners,

This week I want to plug The Graduate Center Provost’s Digital Innovation Grants because the deadline for applying is rapidly approaching (Oct. 20!). Unfortunately, the grant is only open to doctoral students at the CUNY Graduate Center, but taking a look at the Call for Applications, this persuasive post on why you should apply from the GC’s Digital Fellows, and the projects produced by some of last year’s winners can provide inspiration for your future Commons projects (and a reminder that there’s probably money out there somewhere to help you get YOUR interesting project off the ground).

Inequaligram – project analyzes 7,442,454 public Instagram images shared in Manhattan over five months. Using maps and data, the team measures economic inequality to analyze differences in sharing between parts of a city.

The Philip C. Van Buskirk Archive – project to digitize and making freely available the first seven years of the unpublished journals of Philip C. Van Buskirk. The resulting archive is free and publicly available for reading and searching and will eventually also be available to interested scholars to annotate, index, and tag in XML. The original journals are housed in the Special Collections of the University of Washington Libraries, available only on site or on microfilm via interlibrary loan.

RE-VISUALIZING CARE: the digital assemblage – an open-source, multimedia digital assemblage. Created alongside Victoria Restler‘s printed dissertation, Re-visualizing care: Teachers’ invisible labor in neoliberal times, it is designed to showcase and theorize the visual, aural and multimodal components of my research. Alongside traditional methods of qualitative research analysis, I created four “bodies of (art)work” as part of making and making sense of my dissertation data and research. On this website, I present two of these projects together with chapter-length reflexive and analytical texts: rubbing every object and surface in Betty’s math classroom and excessive practice.

Teaching Bilinguals (Even if You’re Not One): A CUNY-NYSIEB Webseries – Join CUNY-NYSIEB Research Assistant, Sara Vogel, on a journey across New York City and State to learn how teachers draw on their students’ diverse language practices as resources in their learning!

The Walden Soundscape –  project ito share the sounds at Walden Pond in Concord, MA with any interested reader of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in the form of an immersive website experience.

Until next week, get out there and think up some projects!

Best,

Paul

In Common this Week: Teaching with help from fellow Commoners

Welcome back fellow Commoners,

It looks like we’re going to be continuing on the teaching theme again this week. Last installment I suggested a few interesting undergraduate and graduate courses sites out there on the Commons. This week I want to highlight some of the excellent resources fellow Commoners have created to help you create your own engaging course site. A core principal behind the Commons project is that the community shares its experiences. This culture of open knowledge distinguishes this little patch of the web and is worth celebrating.

Teach@CUNY Handbook – I’ve mentioned this publication when it was first debuted on the Commons last Spring. The slick formatting, useful table of contents, and the interactive annotations really make this guide stand out. This year, print versions of the handbook are available, but the digital version, housed on the Commons, is still the easiest to access. Distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 license, you can use, share, and even adapt the guide for your own uses provided you cite the Graduate Center’s Teaching and Learning Center which published it.

Reflections from Spring 2017 Faculty Commons Fellows Program – In the Spring of 2017, the Teaching and Learning Center at the Graduate Center sponsored a fellows program to develop resources for teachers using the Commons for their courses. Some of the results made their way into the Teach@CUNY handbook and other places, but some of the most compelling, qualitative results were compiled in this post part of the TLC’s “Visible Pedagogy” project.

Examples of Uncanny Accommodations – Dale Katherine Ireland is a doctoral candidate in the English program at the Graduate Center who specializes in Composition and Rhetoric and Disability Studies. In this thoughtful post Ireland confronts the problem of accessibility in digital course materials. While instructors often view digital materials as more accessible, Ireland points out that this results in little planning for students who make use of e-readers, for example. Ireland also suggests ways faculty can make their own accessibility practices evident to students, showing how they can make their own work accessible to facilitate group participation.

Creating an OER? How Should you License it? – We don’t often think of a course website as a resource because it doesn’t look like a textbook or an archive. If you’re a student, though, it certainly is and it can also be for the stray visitors who wander in. Some instructors invite this kind of interaction from outside communities. Either way, it’s important to think about what permissions you want to give others to use your material (including syllabus, worksheets, etc.). Open@CUNY is a site on the Commons that focuses on helping faculty and students make their projects open and shareable. This post is one of the most succinct explanations of all those Creative Commons licenses (like the one the Teach@CUNY handbook uses and even the default one that covers all content on the Commons). It’s a good place to to begin.

That’s all for this week.

Warmest regards,

Paul

In Common this Week: Teaching on the Commons

Welcome fellow Commoners,

As I mentioned last week, the talented people who work behind the scenes on maintain and improve the Commons have been preparing for a major update that should make teaching on the Commons much easier for undergraduate instructors. There’s already a lot of great teaching and learning already underway on the Commons and so I wanted to share some of the new courses this semester as inspiration for your future courses.

Professor Dinsman’s WWII Literature English 401 class (York) – Professor Dinsman’s site shows how the media-rich possibilities of the Commons enables students share their “readings” cultural materials. Dinsman has students research propaganda posters, try out recipes designed for war-time rations (the results are not quite Instagram ready) and more.

Professor Walia’s English Composition 121 class (Lehman) – Professor Walia has embraced multimedia on his site that makes use of internet humor (GIFs!) and a robust discussion forum where students post links, ideas, pictures, questions, etc. Professor Walia is also good about reminding students that the site is public and to anticipate public engagement but also to constantly frame their work with that awareness. As more instructors add digital components to their courses, being sure students understand the implications of digital participation (both good and bad) is critical.

Digital Praxis Seminar (Graduate Center) – It makes sense that the Digital Praxis Seminar would be taught on the Commons. This team-taught course walks students through the planning and implementation phases of digital tools and unlike the two examples above, the students are authors and editors of the blog itself. There are private posts and password protected posts as well, giving students options for how open they wish to be to the general public, but the majority of the site shows different students and groups thinking through their projects and the team of instructors and invited guests often encourage a lively discussion.

That’s all the inspiration for this week. It’s only three sites but each rewards a long look to see how the instructors are making use of Commons features, the unique capabilities of a digital platform, and the opportunity to craft interactive assignments.

Until next week,

Paul

Fear of going “Totally Public”: Course Sites and Student Privacy

Welcome back to another week at the In Common blog,

Last Spring, the Commons team began encouraging faculty to use the Commons in their undergraduate courses as an alternative to proprietary platforms such as Blackboard, WordPress.com, or Canvas (you can read reflections from faculty who were early adopters here, compiled by the GC’s Teaching and Learning Center). In the upcoming updates to the Commons, the process of inviting users to a group will be made significantly easier in an effort to make teaching on the Commons easier.

This new initiative raises an important question: what privacy settings should you use on your course blog? Should you tread, boldly, into the world of being “totally public”?

In this week’s post, I want to make a brief case for doing so and I invite readers to post their thoughts in response. Do you use open courses? How? Why is it important to your pedagogy?

In a sense, the most significant difference between the Commons and proprietary software like Blackboard is that course work can be open to the public. Blackboard places not only student work but course materials behind a wall that limits accessibility. One of the guiding principles behind the Commons is that intellectual work is a public good that only benefits people when it is shared openly. Making a course “totally public” makes course material open to your students of course, but also students and educators all over the world. Additionally, it inaugurates students into a world where they are contributors to public knowledge rather than just consumers of it.

Volumes of ink have spilled describing the benefits of demonstrating to students that their school work has a potential audience outside the classroom. Instructors have used social media to have students engage with scholars through Twitter and Facebook, and they’ve invited colleagues and collaborators to respond to student comments and coursework. These hint at some of the enlightening experiences students can have when their work is made public. Public blogs also encourage students to collect useful outside materials in one place and share them, demonstrating the fact that students are already making use of other publicly available knowledge and ultimately helping out their classmates.

But what responsibility do instructors have to the privacy of their students? FERPA demands that student work not be made public without the written authorization of students. How should that affect the decision of instructors to make their blogs public?

The GC’s HASTAC has a useful post that addresses these issues succinctly, with recommendations from Kevin Smith, Duke University’s Director of Copyright and Scholarly Communication. In short, Smith argues that public blogs present no conflict with FERPA provided you follow these simple recommendations:

  1. Inform students at the beginning of the course that they will be required to post to a public blog and give them the opportunity to speak with you privately if they have any concerns about their privacy when doing so.
  2. Make it possible for students to participate in the blog under an alias or pseudonym. Most advice actually says that students should be encouraged to use pseudonyms.
  3. Strongly remind students not to post private information.
  4.  Consider whether you should provide an alternative way for a student to fulfill the class requirements if they are really concerned about participating in a public blog, even under an alias. Most students will think this is a perfectly fine, natural activity. But FERPA is in place to protect the rare, unfortunate student who may need to hide from a stalker or abuser. In those situations, fear may be a strong motivator for the student, and that apprehension should be taken seriously.

Having made my case briefly, I invite readers to comment below. What struggles have you had making courses open or what success stories have you had? What resources have you found helpful?

That’s it for this week,

Paul

 

Welcome to a new semester at the In Common Blog!

Welcome fellow Commoners,

We’re embarking on a new semester here at the Commons and that means that there is a flurry of activity. This semester the Commons Team is working hard to make teaching on the Commons easier so that undergraduate faculty to make use of the Commons for their courses. So I expect we’ll have a lot of interesting student projects and course blogs to browse this year. I’ll also be trying to rope in some of the Commons Development team this semester, maybe with interviews or guest posts, to discuss all of the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep this space up and running (and responding to your requests!). There’s a lot of public work going on even if it doesn’t always appear in the Recent Activity feeds on the Commons home page!

Here on the In Common blog we’ll be kicking off the semester next week with a post about opening your course blogs so they’re public. Hopefully it’ll spark some discussion about what are the benefits of teaching on the Commons and we can collect some of the ways people are already making use of open courses.

Until next week,

Paul

School’s Out for Summer!

Fellow Commoners,

Just a short note this week: classes are out and the semester is over! That means I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the summer. The end of the semester means an end to some of the routines of academic work, but its also time for me to get to work on my own projects.

This summer I’ll be traveling to several port cities along the east coast to visit archives. I’ll be digging down into sailor’s journals and reading sensational literature from the early nineteenth century. It might not sound that interesting to everyone, but it’s a fascinating world for me and undergirds my dissertation project.

But, never fear, I’ll be back in the Fall, blogging again about the Commons and putting a spotlight on the interesting projects on which people are working on the Commons.

Until then,

Paul

In Common this week: Beyond the Hall

Welcome back fellow Commoners,

I’m going to do things a bit different in this post. Instead of going identifying a particular theme across new content this week on the Commons, I’m going to focus in on several aspects of one site: the conference website for Beyond the Hall.

Beyond the Hall is a conference scheduled for later this month that seeks to confront the unique history that the Bronx Community College (BCC) campus embodies. For a recent EdTech conference I was on the campus recently and so perhaps this seems particularly relevant to me this week.

BCC’s campus is beautiful by any standards, but certainly for an urban university and especially for a CUNY campus. Some of the schools, like Queens College where I teach, are lucky enough to have campuses that “feel” like a college campus–a reminder that the way we approach even something as supposedly universal as learning and knowledge is always based first and foremost in the material.

And the material campus of BCC is primarily from a former NYU campus that CUNY acquired in the 70s when NYU suffered financially and, with the changing demographics of the Bronx, decided that the campus was no longer a good investment.

This means that BCC students inhabit an academic world that, for many of them, would not have been accessible not that long ago. It’s a sobering thought, I think.

Most notable on the campus is the Hall of Heroes which enshrines, literally, in the shape of stone busts, “heroes” who were nominated for their work on behalf of Americans and the Bronx particularly. Yet, and perhaps predictably, almost all of them are white and wealthy, reflecting only one of the demographics that ever lived in the Bronx and hardly reflecting the students who actually use the campus now.

It is this strange history that the conference seeks to engage with. I think it’s a noble cause, too. But most importantly, I think, the conference organizers have sought to make the conference website more than simply an informational site for conference participants. All too often, genuine attempts to deal with history are cordoned off in academia and difficult to access, at the best of times, by everyday folks. The organizers are clearly seeking to change this by making the website a real archive of material about the history of the Bronx.

For that reason, perhaps the biggest contribution is the section of the site which sets of a virtual Hall of Heroes, with user-suggested Heroes. You can see what they’ve done here, in their special site “Visions of Greatness.”

The organizers have also been effective bloggers, releasing information about panelists both as a way of drumming up interest but also consolidating materials for future research.

Looking it over, I’m particularly struck at the care with which this material has been collected. For example, for the post on Elena Martinez, a panelist from the Bronx County Historical Society, collects Bronx-centered materials for researching the musical heritage of the Bronx.

Further, the blog connects to digitization efforts, pointing to projects that participants or community members might want to get involved with. It’s a great example of how the work that begins in a academic conference can continue on after an event.

This is a conference website that rewards poking around. I suggest you take a look and consider ways you can use the Commons in conjunction with your events to engage not only with the community of academics, but with the wider communities we of which we are a part.

Until next week,

Paul

 

In Common this week: Terms of Service

Welcome back folks,

A recent college study was highlighted in The Guardian lately that confirms something we all know anecdotally: few people read terms of service. In the experiment with over five hundred college students, only a quarter “looked” at the terms of service for a fictitious service. Of course, as the article points out, looking is not the same as reading since only a fraction of those that read caught the fact that participants were actually signing away their first born child.

Terms of service can be dicey. They can be long and they can be legalistic meaning that even those who take the time to read them may not understand what they say. This is especially concerning in a city like New York where even elections instructions and signs are printed in more than seven languages. Terms of Services certainly aren’t written to be as accessible as elections instructions and we’ve all been in long lines and maybe even made mistakes on ballots ourselves. Yet we’re signing away our rights often thanks to these agreements.

I think about this especially because I work on digital tools and because I teach with digital tools. I signed up for Twitter initially because of a class requirement. “Join in the lively academic discussion!” the instructor said, with only a few comments on being aware that most of the information in Twitter is public. But we didn’t discuss the Terms of Service and what we would be giving away as our ticket into this discussion.

Now, I’m hardly a luddite or a privacy maven. This blog is proof of that, to some degree. I’m also, as I’ve written in other posts, a Social Media Fellow at the GC. I’m very aware of the value of digital tools, of social media, and of the intellectual discussion that can and does go on over many, many digital platforms.

But what I want to do this week is to take a look at Terms of Service of the Commons. Since I consider one of the reasons for this blog to be active promotion of the remarkable ways people at the GC are using the Commons and thus crafting arguments about why you might want to use the Commons, it’s still important to consider what the folks behind the Commons are doing with your data and what they can do.

Jumping in

The terms of service for the Commons can be found through the “About” tab on the site (you can’t find it from the backend when you’re in the WordPress dashboard).

At almost two thousand words, the Commons’ Terms of Service (TOS) isn’t a quick read, but it is, notably, a less legalistic document than, say, the TOS for a tool that many people use daily — their Gmail account (the link is just to the Google privacy policy since the Gmail TOS is broken into several pages; the Privacy policy is the longest). It’s a sign, I like to think, that the folks behind the Commons what the students who use it to know what they’re getting into.

Notably the posting to Commons (no matter the setting, this includes “private” or “admin only”), gives CUNY (not just the Commons) “a nonexclusive, royalty free, perpetual, and worldwide license to use the Content on the Site. . .including but not limited to, the right to copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, edit, translate, and reformat the Content, and/or to incorporate it into a collective work” At first, it seems pretty scary, right? Do I really want my under-construction site to suddenly be picked up and plastered all over CUNY sites?

In reality, that’s unlikely to happen. As a Social Media Fellow, I’m particularly careful not to tweet out or link to Commons work unless I receive permission from the author or the information is clearly ready for public consumption: think of articles people have posted or content from organizations.

The last part of the sentence is related to the whole idea behind having a “commons” — a space that is not really owned by anyone but free for all to use. It’s a metaphorical relationship though, also an ethical one, that doesn’t always fit in with a University-funded project. Still, especially with the references to remixing and collaborative projects, is meant to gesture towards Creative Commons licenses (which have their own roots in academic ideas freedom of expression).

Importantly though, the Commons TOS continues though: that license remains until “you remove or delete [your content].”

That might seem like a common-sense addition. Surely, if you delete something, no one has access to it. But the digital world isn’t like that. Cached versions remain, backups, etc. Facebook and Google often have access to you data long after you deactivate your account unless you specifically request they delete them and even then, sometimes, on some platforms, you still do not have a guarantee as to your data.

Sometimes the right to delete your data is as important as the right to post data.

A Final Note

The TOS are too long to really break down in one blog post, but my point, really, is to encourage you to read them. The second to last section of the Commons TOS reminds you as well:

“We reserve the right to change, at any time, at our sole discretion, these Terms.  You are responsible for regularly reviewing these Terms.  Your continued use of the Site constitutes your agreement to all of these Terms.”

It’s a potent reminder that the TOS you agreed to when you first signed on with the Commons might not be the TOS that is currently on the site. This is true for most TOS you agree to–they can be changed at any time.

Further, it reminds us of the responsibility we all share to actually check in with TOS from time to time.

The Commons has one of the most readable TOS of any service I’ve seen and it shows a significant attempt to protect the privacy rights of its users. Still, it’s important that we all do our due diligence.

Until next time fellow Commoners,

Paul